28 August 2009

"Accident blackspot - an x and a dot"

The best skill I possess, which came with qualifications and everything, is shorthand. I have 100 words per minute in Teeline, the requisite speed required to get an NCTJ-accredited qualification in journalism.

Shorthand is fantastically useful and lapsed hacks like me will tell you that it's like riding a bike in that you'll never lose it, even if you give up using it on a daily or regular basis. I doubt I could pass a 100wpm exam now but I do still make notes and jot stuff down with odd scrawls and symbols all the time.

I think most wannabe scribes who enrolled on the NCTJ pre-entry certificate in the 1980s and 1990s were more concerned about the shorthand than they were about any other aspect of the training. We also had to learn writing styles, newsgathering, law and public affairs. At least with each of those we could exercise any natural ability or common knowledge we had already managed to consume. There was no such option with shorthand - unless you'd already learned it.

We had two such people. A Scottish student called Lorna had done PA work and therefore had a 100wpm qualification, while a top chap named Alistair, whom I still see occasionally, had enrolled in a night class while at university in the correct belief that it would give him a head start when he completed his degree and joined the training course. However, both of these estimable student hacks learned Pitman shorthand.

In case you don't know, Pitman is the more arcane shorthand system which works on phonetic sounds and needs lightness of touch, as the same symbol within some Pitman prose can mean one of two things depending on the darkness of the shade. This meant that all Pitman followers needed to use a pencil.

That's all I know about Pitman, simply from watching Lorna and Alistair in action, and therefore I can't say whether the system is easier or not than Teeline, the modern shorthand system which simply uses short symbols representing each letter of the alphabet and you simply connect them up to create words.

The theory is fairly straightforward and once you've learned the alphabet, some basic rules and some cunning groupings, the majority of the course involves practice, practice, practice in order to build up speed. Regularly we'd be given cassettes for our personal stereos (this was 1991, remember) and told to practise with them, while also writing down stuff said on the TV or radio. Soon you'd get to the point where you could be having a conversation and mentally converting what they'd said into bizarre looking squiggles and symbols.

We took exams at 40,50, 60 and 80 wpm to monitor our progress, then came the first big 100wpm exam. In order to give us two opportunities to acquire a qualification, we took RSA 100wpm exams first, then the official NCTJ ones later. Both were as worthy as each other as it was all about speed of pen and nothing else. You'd take a 90wpm test as a warm-up and then the short 100wpm exam (about three minutes worth of carefully-read prose at precisely the required speed), prior to then transcribing your squiggles and smudges back into the original paragraph you'd just heard. If I recall rightly, you passed if you made three or fewer errors.

Shorthand is vital to any journalist, and especially so if you want to work in the print side of the industry. Radio and TV hacks need it less due to their reliance on recording equipment, and indeed the trainee radio hacks down the corridor from us at college needed 80wpm to achieve their qualification. I believe it's down to 60wpm now. Recording equipment is banned in courts of law, inquests and council meetings and therefore the ability to keep up with the proceedings via the use of a pen and notepad is crucial. The transcribing process is so much easier too, with no need to keep stopping and restarting and rewinding and pausing a tape recorder every few seconds.

The best PAs and transcribers can do something like 200wpm, twice the speed I ever managed. Lactic acid build up in the knuckles is commonplace at 100wpm after a while so heaven only knows what it's like for these top line shorthanders.

When I use it now, people are genuinely fascinated by it. If I have a match report to write for one of the online Hull City fanzines, I'll often use my shorthand. On one occasion in the post-match pub, my regular drinking compadres seemed transfixed as I went through the alphabet with them and then wrote their names out in Teeline.

So, with the aid of Paint, here are four of my favourite blogs in their Teeline glory...

In order... Five Centres, ishouldbeworking, Modern Gutnish and Valentine Suicide.

26 August 2009

I'm angry about parking, me

Parking your car shouldn't be the utterly miserable, frustrating experience that it is.

It is an amazingly difficult, expensive and provocative business these days. It shouldn't be the most taxing or inconvenient task in the world - the act of safely leaving your car somewhere while you go about your daily business. But the parking mafia are out to get us.

City and town centre parking is a total scam. The charges are abhorrent, the enforcers are totally humourless and inflexible, we can send spaceships to Jupiter but we can't make a machine that gives change (there's nothing worse than the hateful feeling you experience when you are forced to pay £2.10 parking with a brace of £2 coins) and the land used by councils for car parks belongs to the taxpayer anyway, therefore making it essentially a stealth tax on us.

Have you had the misfortune to be at a hospital lately? Not content with making relatives worry about the treatment, condition and care of their loved ones, they add to the strain by charging extortionate rates at hospital car parks, which always used to be (rightly) free. You are severely fleeced for a mere hour's worth of visiting time and many stories are circulating now about how appallingly car owners are treated by jobsworth car park enforcers when their stay is extended by an emergency situation.

Street parking is now almost impossible thanks to either needless double yellow lines or those irritating blue signs which either give a set time of day for parking restrictions, or claim it is a 'permit only' road, even though every house on it has a garage and a driveway - ample room for two cars. I once got a ticket for parking 'out of hours' on one of these roads, and I wrote a haughty letter to the police chief responsible for parking (bet that role doesn't gain an A* on the jobsatisfactionometer) pointing out that the uneducated person who commissioned the sign had neglected to say whether the hours in question were the allowed hours or prohibited hours. He wrote back to say his underling was right to issue the ticket, but waived it nonetheless - on reflection, I think writing it on the headed notepaper of the town's radio station where I was breakfast show host at the time had something of an effect.

Traffic wardens are renowned for self-benefitting when it comes to their own cars, turning a blind eye when a colleague uses the very areas which they would issue tickets in if Joseph Public dared leave his car there. Car clampers should be banned, irrespective of whether they are public or private - they did away with wheel clamping in France within a month of its introduction because of people power, and that's what we should do here.

In Nottingham, they're ready to introduce charges for companies whose employees park cars at their places of work - ie, on private land. How on earth can they get away with that? Just how outrageous does someone's plan to empty money from someone's purse or pocket have to be before enough is enough?

It's not just the authorities out to get the law-abiding car owners. There are some totally thoughtless drivers who are ruining it for the rest of us. Like those who ruthlessly ignore parent and child spaces at supermarkets because they are too lazy and too fat and they simply have to get their multipack of peanuts and bottles of cheap vodka at a struggling mother's expense.

People have orange badges for all sorts of dubious reasons, allowing them to park their totally unadapted car in disabled spaces when someone with real physical difficulty might need that space. I know of someone who possesses an orange badge simply because they once had an ingrowing toenail, for example. There is vast misappropriation and misuse of these badges.

And no, leaving your hazards on does not decriminalise an illegal act of parking. Shift it, now.

In France, the big cities quite like people to visit them, to eat in their restaurants, to spend money in their shops, to tour their attractions. So they aid the process by offering everybody free parking in their public car parks and side streets all day, every day. No signs. No hideous machines. No warnings of prosecution. No yellow lines.

It's bliss. And it works too - more people visit, more goodwill is felt, more money rolls into the city's businesses and everyone thrives either through being valued as a customer or visitor, or being aided and protected as a business person or public body. It would be too easy (ie, too difficult) for it to happen here and unfortunately, the powerful know that for as long as we remain reliant on our cars, through inadequate public transport and the pressures of work, they can victimise us on everything a car owner needs to function.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I've just been asked to move my (legally parked) car.

24 August 2009

Let's get physical...

My first ever gym workout has just ended and I'm writing this while in possession of a face of considerable redness.

I quite enjoyed it and found myself wondering, in the absence of expert help and guidance, exactly how long I should carry on for. In the end, I did about 90 minutes on the treadmill, cross trainer and rowing machine before deciding I'd burned off enough. To misquote the kid after his first day at primary school, however, I didn't do enough and I have to go back tomorrow.

Yes, I'm 36 years old and until today, I had never done a proper "health suite" session in my life. All my physical activity as a smaller person took place in the swimming pool, on the badminton court and on the football field. In adult life, I've contented myself with (very) occasional five-a-side football sessions and lots of walking, which is something of a necessity when you have dogs. This kept me in reasonable shape without ever giving me Schwarzenegger's physique, but now it's finally caught up.

Physiologists and medical people generally will know why this is, but somehow it seems spending my entire childhood in the swimming pool, training seven times from Monday to Friday and competing at weekends, seems to have helped me in my adulthood life as I dispensed with heavy, regular exercise. I still have the broad shoulders of a swimmer, but no longer the lithe thighs or bump-free stomach. Very simply, I weigh too much and need to do something about it.

I'm on breakfast shifts this week, so was up at 3am and therefore figured, upon returning home at about 1pm, that the gym would be at its quietest as it isn't open to under 16s and a good number of over 16s would be at work. When I got there, just two people - one male, one female, both a decade and more younger than me - were doing their stuff. Instantly, I felt gravely embarrassed at my lack of tone compared to these two, not to mention my age and inexperience. Nonetheless, I locked up my stuff and headed for the treadmill.

Upon signing up, I'd filled in a medical records form and revealed my weight, and the chap doing the induction course kindly did me a programme to follow. I don't want to build up muscles, just shift two stone and feel fitter, so he did me a programme ultimately aimed at achieving these results. He was being optimistic, to say the least. After warming up on the bike, I managed 25 minutes on the treadmill at the allotted speed but only the first minute - I'm not joking, one poxy minute - used the incline he suggested. After a minute my calf muscles were dialling 999 and I knew, quite simply, that the incline would have to go, or I would. The latter wasn't an option.

The speed walk I then did for 25 minutes was, however, a great success and I sweated and cursed and huffed my way through it, while being forced to watch awful pop videos on 4Music on the screen above me. A girl then came in and set up the treadmill to my left at twice my speed and with lots of incline, and promptly jogged her way through a harsh looking ten minutes without a bead of sweat even dampening her eyebrows. An athlete she was, and an athlete I evidently wasn't, but on I soldiered, determined to be bright red only through exertion and not embarrassment.

Then it was the cross trainer. I'd been told to try eight minutes going forwards and eight minutes backwards. I managed the eight minutes forwards but backwards was harder, not just because my legs were hurting, but because I found the rhythm of it difficult, even though the arm movement on the handles makes it akin to the way limbs combine when on a normal stroll. It was like the aerobic equivalent of head patting, tummy rubbing, and I couldn't do it. But I'll try again tomorrow, and keep trying until I can.

The rowing machine was next, and I loved this and actually really got into it. The 12 minutes I did, at the level suggested, felt good, and for the first time I felt confident enough to do the involuntary exclamations one lets out while timing movements and breathing. However, the stepper machine was a killer. Anybody who has suffered scorched calves (and vertigo) thanks to being in Newcastle United's away end will know what I went through. Imagine going up those many flights of steps again, and again, and again...

I appreciate that most of you reading this will be gym users and therefore I'll hardly be telling you anything new. But for a novice like me, it was far more fun than I expected it to be. I did as much right as I could according to the programme - fluids, cool downs after each stint, stretches - and had a spell on the leg press before returning to the treadmill for a ten-minute flurry, prior to leaving.

There were distractions, of course. A few other people came in during my time there and were extremely impressive and focussed in what they were doing and how they were doing it. A bloke at least 15 years older than me went on the cross trainer and made it look like he was ambling along to the pub. As his legs lurched back and forth smoothly, I felt like the adult ice skater described by The Mary Whitehouse Experience and played by Hugh Dennis, who kept slipping and falling over, hurting his head and cutting himself, prior to giving the hateful look to a seven year old who glides by, "doing it really well".

But I'm a beginner. I intend to continue with this, while also using the pool and rediscovering my training discipline. The fact that I seemed to weigh more as I left than I did upon arrival hasn't put me off at all. Oh no.